Charles Edward Crutchfield, Sr. was born in a small semi-rural town in Jasper, Alabama, a town of 8,500 people, about 2,500 of whom were Black. But he was inspired to be a doctor at the early age of six and became a pioneering Minnesota physician.
Unlike other parts of the U.S., the South did not even begin to rebound from the depression, which began in the late 1920s, until after World War II. “We were all poor,” Crutchfield says of his small town community. “But we didn’t know we were poor. We thought that it was the norm.”
By age six, determined to not be dependent on his parents, he got a job as a shine boy. “It happened to be that my dad owned the barbershop, but I was shining for another guy who ran the shoe stand,” recalls Crutchfield. “I shined shoes for years for 10 cents. He got a nickel and I got a nickel.”
Through personal experience with illness at age six, he was inspired to learn medicine by a visiting doctor. “I had strep throat but I was septic, and I had a fever of over 103. And I can remember lying in the bed looking at the ceiling, and the ceiling was moving, coming down to the floor. I remember thinking, ‘That ceiling isn’t moving; I am seeing things.’ I thought, this is not a good sign.”
The doctor told his father about penicillin, a new drug at the time used during World War I, and said, “I’d like to give your son a shot of it.”
In those days, Crutchfield explains, the steel needles were used repeatedly, got dull, and were much more painful than those used today. “So he gave me a shot in my behind and did it hurt! Two days later I went back to school. And I thought, ‘I want to be able to help people like this. I think if I ever get a chance to be a doctor, I’m going to be a doctor.’”
Crutchfield always excelled in class and was moved up twice to a higher grade. Where did this aptitude come from? Besides having the skills to take tests well, Crutchfield says, “I am always trying to learn. If I go to sleep at night and I feel that I have learned something, it’s been a good day. I had a quest, a yearning, to learn. And I’ve kept that up all of my life.
“When I was a shine boy in the barbershop, I would sit around and listen to the people talk. They would argue [about] things like do dogs have intelligence… Is it instinctive or is it actual thinking?
“A barbershop in the old days, in the ’50s, was a gathering place for men to discuss politics, and I would listen to this.”
When he was 15 and going into the 12th grade, his teachers told his father that he was the best student to come through the school in over 25 years. He was often the one chosen to compete against students in the White school through quizzes and spelling bees. In Jasper, if you were Black your job choices were limited mainly to working in the coal mines, where the pay was good, working as a cook, or janitor. For those fortunate enough to go to college, teaching was a possibility.
“[My father] he said, ‘I’d like to see you make something of yourself,’” so he sent Charles to Minnesota where his aunt and grandmother lived to get a better education. “My grandmother and I were close… She was a big, heavy-set, dark lady who was…extremely bright but never had a lot of education, which was the case in my family.”
His mother went as far as the eighth grade, and his father, fifth grade. “The reason my aunt moved, she had a husband who ‘went for bad.’” He was an outlaw. “He had a gun and a knife, and he could pull his knife out, open, ready to cut your throat in a second; he was that good.”
His uncle had a disagreement with the police in Jasper, and Crutchfield’s father urged him to leave town. They moved to a duplex in North Minneapolis on 12th and Girard in June of 1955, and in 1956, Crutchfield moved there as well.
But when he got to North High School, he was academically behind. “These kids studied. They took books home in book satchels. I had never studied in my life… I had to kind of hustle first quarter at North. First quarter, I think I got a C+. I was really upset.”
Within a couple of marking periods, he was back to his typical A grades and was the only Black student on the honor roll. He was preparing himself to go to the University of Minnesota, though he didn’t have the money.
He wrote a letter to the University asking them to consider him as a resident student, though his parents lived in Alabama and he had only been in Minnesota one year. The University accepted his request, and after two years at the University of Minnesota, he was encouraged by his teacher to apply to medical school early.
“I applied in my third year of pre-med and they accepted me. So I was able to get into medical school when I was 19 years old and graduated at 23 as the youngest male in the class.”
While in med school, he also worked 28 hours a week. He had no scholarships. A teacher encouraged him to get a loan so that he could spend more time studying and improve his grades. “I took out a $17,000 loan, and that’s what I came out of school owing, $17,000 in 1962.”
When applying for residency, the doctor leading the program asked him, “If I accept you in my residency program to be an obstetrician and gynecologist here at the University of Minnesota, are you going to be a Negro doctor for Negro patients?”
Crutchfield answered. “If you accept me into your residency program… I will be a Negro doctor who treats all patients.”
He got the residency, he says, because of hard work: “If you are Black, even now, you have to be better than anybody else. You have to do your job better, and I knew that from down in Alabama, and I kept that ethic.”
After a couple of years in the Air Force, Dr. Joseph Goldsmith asked Crutchfield to join his practice. “He said, ‘You’ve got good hands, I like you in surgery, and patients like you.” But people told him working as an obstetrician in a White practice wouldn’t work.
“Well, within two years, I was as busy as I could be.” Goldsmith left for Florida after two years, leaving Crutchfield the practice. “So I only had one job [as a physician most] all my life. I joined Goldsmith in ‘69,” and worked there through 2008. Eighty percent of his patients were White — he’d become a Black doctor for all patients.
“I’ve always prayed. Before any class, I said Lord, help me with these people. I don’t have the same background, intellect or previous education [as the Whites], but guide my hands.” He has performed over 6,000 surgeries without ever losing a patient. And he has delivered over 9,000 babies, losing only three. “I’m not a ‘praise the Lord’ person, but I have had the Lord guide my hands.”
Dr. Crutchfield was the first Black OB/GYN to open practice in Minnesota. “I try to give back now. I volunteered…at Open Cities…for over seven years, came back this time and volunteered two years. I’m just trying to give back to my people.”
Vickie Evans-Nash welcomes reader’s responses to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vickie Evans-Nash is a contributing writer and former editor in chief at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.